Theorizing CoPe.




The Congress of the People is a new party. South Africans do not know how much support it really commands anywhere. Nor do South Africans know how far CoPe’s muddled and unsatisfactory manifesto is a simple product of haste and lack of consultation, and whether this reflects a genuinely weak political position. Nor, in the main, do South Africans even know whether CoPe is a democratic structure or whether it is merely a political Potemkin village like the Independent Democrats, who do so good a job of fooling people who desperately want to be fooled (and there are many, many of these in South Africa).

What we know about it is that it was formed by people who were unhappy at the way in which the ANC was going under Zuma, that it is reasonably well-funded, presumably but not absolutely certainly by black business, that it commands some support in the Western and Eastern Cape (elsewhere its support is more obscure), and that it has focussed upon moral issues, which implies that it does not intend to make any major practical changes to policy (parties based on moral posturing are necessarily doing so because they are not in a position to base themselves on real political change — since their constituents actually want change and would support a party which promised to provide it).

What appears to be the case is that CoPe is trying to attract ANC supporters by claiming to be the true heirs of the liberation struggle. This explains the argument that the ANC has failed to abide by the principles of the Freedom Charter, whereas CoPe, if given the opportunity, would abide by those principles. Since the principles of the Freedom Charter are supposedly the principles underpinning the ANC’s activities, CoPe thus claims, without any action, evidence or actual justification, to be more ANC than the ANC.

Is this plausible?

The most that one can say is that it is not impossible. This is possible purely because the ANC in the last four years has become almost entirely careerist, and almost completely colonised by corporatism, and yet at the same time denounces careerism and corporatism. It follows that the ANC is hypocritical and cannot be trusted. In that case, CoPe could justify its position by simply denying that it is hypocritical; in effect, CoPe could simply claim to stand for the ANC as it existed at the time when Mbeki was in power (around, say, 2003-4), and to repudiate the current ANC’s crooks, blowhards and nefarious spin-doctors, and it would have a strong case for the support of ANC members.

This, in fact, seems to be the basis for CoPe’s support. On the face of it, it should not be a particularly strong basis. No doubt the leadership of the ANC are unhappy at having lost out to a clique of scoundrels, but the leadership of the ANC are politicians, and politicians are not purists. As to the rest of the population, why should they expect CoPe to do more for them than they did when the leaders of CoPe were leaders of the ANC, and the population was far from satisfied with what the ANC was doing?

Yet, interestingly, there does seem to be a real groundswell of support for CoPe. In a recent by-election in Nkonkobe, the ANC’s support came in at 73%, which seems a pretty convincing victory until one realises that their support in the previous election in that ward was 97%. Of course it may be argued that the people most likely to participate in such a by-election were people particularly interested in politics — former ANC members and so on — and therefore this was not representative of a true election in which a wider constituency would be likely to turn out. Still, that would mean that 24/97, or almost exactly a quarter of the ANC’s core supporters, had gone off to CoPe. If that applied to the whole Eastern Cape, this would imply a fall from 80% to 60%, which would be a serious blow to the ANC. If it applied to the whole country, it would imply a fall from 70% to 52,5%, which would be a cataclysmic blow to the ANC.

There is no way that one can extrapolate from a single ward to the province, let alone the country, of course. Yet — if we do not know that this Nkonkobe ward was representative, we also do not know if it illustrated an exaggeration or an underestimate of CoPe’s actual strength. It is perfectly possible that, given that the by-elections were not very well publicised despite some substantial campaigning by both sides, but also given that everybody expected the ANC to win the ward and therefore most CoPe supporters would not have bothered to come out, the result underplayed CoPe’s strength. (CoPe advertises itself with motorcades, which might seem to suggest a bit of elitism — although, interestingly, the vehicles in the motorcades, unlike those in the ANC’s competing motorcades, are often old bangers ornamented with CoPe stickers. This hints that CoPe may command at least some support among the less affluent.)

It does seem that there is turmoil in the ANC at branch level. People are trying to use Zuma’s rise to power to their own advantage, seeking nomination for councillorships — because councillors are relatively well paid by the standards of small rural villages, a councillorship is enormously desired. Meanwhile, the provincial ANC has refused to allow councillors or mayors to stand for the national list, except under very special conditions (read: known utter loyalty to the Zuma leadership). This again hints that the ANC does not trust its membership at local level; it fears either that they might secretly support CoPe, or else, worse still, that it simply does not control them and therefore cannot permit them to gain any power. In contrast to this, while CoPe has had a great deal of difficulty in winning over high-profile supporters, it seems to have had little difficulty in gaining local support. As a result, again, the turnout at local level may be much stronger than is expected in some provinces.

Not all provinces, of course. Nobody seriously expects a big turn-out for CoPe in Mpumalanga, or in KwaZulu-Natal. (The ANC’s vigorous attempts to crush CoPe with violence and intimidation in the latter province may seem to contradict this — does it not suggest that the party feels vulnerable? However, it is also possible that this is a spillover from the ANC’s still more vigorous attempts to crush the IFP, which it sees as a possible source of votes to mine and thus overshadow the effects of CoPe in the provinces where it is doing well.) However, CoPe may do well in the Eastern Cape, not badly in the Free State and Western Cape, and may at least make a showing in the North-West, Limpopo and perhaps even Gauteng, where it could pick up some white and indian votes.

Why would it do well, then? Simply because the ANC is disintegrating and rotting away, and people desire something to hold on to? That is a plausible theory. Another is simply the lack of ANC leadership. It is significant, admittedly, that CoPe is not competing well — it has failed to win over many leading lights from the ANC — publicly, that is. However, this was also a factor in Mbeki’s demise; many who actually supported Mbeki were not brave enough to put themselves forward as his supporters, and so his enemies tended to win by default. Hence, what worries the ANC’s top leadership is that the middle-level people, most of whom are lacklustre about the top leadership (partly because they are embarrassingly corrupt and incompetent, but chiefly because the new leadership refuse to divvy up the spoils) may be secret CoPe supporters.

Not so long ago, a CoPe announcement that a couple of leading ANC lights were planning to jump ship led to a flurry of pronouncements by what passes for Zuma’s intellectual allies, such as Fikile Mbalula (!) that they a) had known about these people’s intention all along, and b) that they should leave at once, if not sooner. Then they failed to leave. However, nobody really knows what they intend, nor does anybody know what the impact of this bizarre incident could have had on the morale of anyone who was still under the impression that Zuma’s allies in any way know what they are doing. The ANC has bad leaders who continually make fools of themselves. Carl Niehaus blithely responding to his candidate for the Presidency facing solid charges of corruption in the Pietermaritzburg High Court by saying that Zuma need not worry about “unsubstantiated allegations” was a former political prisoner sounding amazingly like Jimmy Kruger dismissing accusations of torture in detention. This is a hell of a lot worse than having weak leaders who keep their heads down.

CoPe, significantly, does not enjoy very solid press support. It gets some love in some areas — the Daily Dispatch seems sympathetic, as does the SABC in some ways, but everyone is quite willing to run anti-CoPe articles, and there is nothing like the media-generated cult of personality which swirls around De Lille or Zille. The reason appears to be that the elite distrusts CoPe. They are prepared to support it if this means supporting the disintegration of the ANC, which is the elite agenda. However, CoPe has a second agenda, which is to reconstruct the ANC. (It is likely that a lot of CoPe sympathisers have stayed in the ANC for this very purpose.) If CoPe causes the ANC’s electoral standing to collapse, well and good, says the elite.

But CoPe’s actual agenda seems not to be simply to replace the ANC. They have presented no alternative to the ANC’s core programme or praxis (which many elite journalists have condemned, since they want the ANC buried rather than supplanted). Most probably their hope is to push the ANC into a major electoral disaster which can then be completely legitimately blamed on the current leadership of the ANC. If and when that happens — especially if the ANC were to fall below the magic 50% — there could be a serious uprising within the ANC, which could well be spearheaded by the CoPe sympathisers remaining there under the radar. (Undoubtedly this is part of the problem which the current leadership faces in the virtual certainty that Zuma is going on trial, which would be a calamitous political embarrassment for the leadership.) In that case the Zuma supporters could be chucked out, replaced by the leadership which Mbeki had wanted (with whatever addenda may have developed since — Mbeki is not the evil genius behind the whole affair, but it is clear that CoPe consists largely of Mbeki supporters simply because Mbeki was the focus of the anti-Zuma campaign which has now been proved right in retrospect). In that case, the ANC could be reformulated with the worst thugs, fixers and fascists in its ranks excluded or neutralised.

And in that case, the South African elite would have been defeated and they would have their job to do all over again. It took them ten years to destroy Mbeki; it could take them even longer to destroy a sequel to him, for the fall of Mbeki concentrated everyone’s mind to the fact that there is a big difference between people you don’t like, and people who are actually criminally corrupt. Meanwhile, if Zuma survives the 2009 election unscathed and is able to cement his position and avoid prosecution, the destruction of the ANC is virtually assured.

It seems clear from this that one should vote CoPe. This does not mean that CoPe is a solution to any problems for South Africa. Nor does it mean that voting CoPe guarantees a better political climate. CoPe, for all its collusion with the elite, seems to be the only forlorn hope of restoring pre-Zuma conditions. Those conditions before 2005 were the best conditions which the South African Left has ever enjoyed for growth and the pursuit of power — it is entirely the Left’s fault that it took no advantage of it. A Zuma presidency and the sequel to it will be devastating to the South African left and a gift to the neoliberals in the elite, who make up the bulk of it.


One Response to Theorizing CoPe.

  1. Steve says:

    why should they expect CoPe to do more for them than they did when the leaders of CoPe were leaders of the ANC, and the population was far from satisfied with what the ANC was doing?

    Yes, that is basically how I see COPE, and why I prefer, for the moment, to stay in the Potemkin Village of the ID, at least until something better comes along. I doubt whether COPE is that something better.

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